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The War Memorial Pylons at Virginia Tech
In a series of alumni-penned essays, we want to share with readers the stories from your diverse academic, personal, and professional backgrounds that express how you live out the Pylon values.

To be considered, select a Pylon value, and send a 100-word abstract to

Although War Memorial Chapel, completed in 1960, was initially intended to honor Techmen killed in World War II, the names of alumni who have died in military conflicts beginning with World War I are now carved on the Pylons. On the upper level, the Memorial Court houses the sculptured Indiana limestone Pylons. The four left Pylons were designed by Henry Kries; the right Pylons were designed by Charles Rudy. The lower level houses a 260-seat chapel.

Sister, Soldier, Surgeon
For one alumna, Ut Prosim means faith, medicine, and charity

Deirdre "Dede" Byrne (biology '78) in a medical tent in Sudan in 2009.
Deirdre "Dede" Byrne (biology '78) in a medical tent in Sudan in 2009.
My calling to religious life, which is a lifelong commitment to service, began when I was a young girl growing up in McLean, Va., in a very devout Catholic family. My parents were daily Mass-goers, which gave them the spiritual nourishment, strength, and joy to do the work they do, and that always inspired me. My father was a busy thoracic surgeon who still made it a priority to attend Mass every day before going to the hospital. My mother would get us ready for school and then dart off to the 9 a.m. Mass—no small commitment since she was raising eight children. From the faithful, loving example of my parents, my brothers and sisters and I learned what it means to have Christ within you. Parents should never underestimate the influence they have on their children's spiritual lives.

Growing up, I looked at the events of the world around me through a religious lens in an attempt to find their deeper meaning. The religious life—serving Christ by serving the poor—was a constant draw for me and led me to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Serving the sick, the poor, and wounded soldiers as a surgeon was a triple gift from God, and He entrusted me with an awesome gift that I do not take for granted. I have to admit what unfolded in my life was not preplanned. "We propose, and God disposes," as the proverb says.

My years at Virginia Tech (from 1974-78) would provide a solid foundation for both my medical career and my religious calling. I was a biology major aspiring to go to medical school, and the programs prepared me well. I had fantastic, caring professors and enjoyed interacting with my fellow students. Because I felt the call to religious life even in college, I became involved in service-oriented activities; my participation in the Newman Community at Virginia Tech (a Catholic campus ministry) provided a connection to the church even during the rigors and routines of my studies.

In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake
In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake
After graduating from Tech in 1978, I attended Georgetown Medical School on a U.S. Army scholarship. Knowing your calling doesn't come without challenges and sacrifice. Having completed a residency in family practice, I finished my second residency in general surgery in 1997. Like many female doctors, I spent my "dating years" working 120-hour weeks in the hospital. In my case, the work was a blessing, as it strengthened my vocation to serve as a religious sister-doctor. I was sustained during this grueling surgical training by daily reception of the Eucharist and stolen moments in the hospital chapel for quiet reflection on the scripture readings for the day. Following my parents' example of communion with and reliance on the Lord saw me through this time in my life. This was spiritual sustenance for me. It was in this same year that, by the hand of God, I had the opportunity to serve as Mother Teresa's doctor for five days during her visit to Washington. This was an affirmation that the work I was doing was, in fact, part of God's plan for me.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Manhattan helping a religious sister who was getting some medical checks when the twin towers crumbled to the ground. Officials were calling for doctors and specifically surgeons, and so by the end of the day, I had made my way to Ground Zero with some of the sisters. I saw firsthand the destruction of the towers and, more tragically, human life.

In tandem with this experience, I met a priest who had served as a Catholic chaplain during the Vietnam War; he introduced me to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, a religious order that included a medical component, and it was a perfect fit for me. I started my formation in 2002, took my first vows in 2004, and recently made final vows.

Because our Italian-based Little Workers community had experienced the integrity and goodness of the U.S. troops who freed them from German occupation during WWII, I was called back to active military service to support our wounded soldiers, post-Sept. 11, with the blessings of my mother general. I served first at Walter Reed Army Hospital and then in Afghanistan as a military surgeon reservist in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

I now practice medicine at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C. It is a blessing to serve the humble, hardworking people of this community. Through my religious order, I am still able to help others around the world in need of medical care. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I provided relief services to victims near Port Au Prince, and I travel to Sudan and Kenya every year.

Christ is the servant of servants, and in spite of my human frailties, I aspire to imitate his call to serve. The vocation of sister-soldier-surgeon affords me triple the opportunity to serve, most importantly as the healing touch of Christ and to make him known, loved, and served throughout the world.

Sister Dr. Deirdre "Dede" Byrne (biology '78) is a general surgeon at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C., and a fully professed member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. She holds the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.


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Winter 2011-12
The War Memorial Pylons at Virginia Tech